Will Caruso Rick-Roll the L.A. Mayoral Campaign?

Cityside Column: The billionaire mall developer could declare as early as this afternoon. Here’s what to expect if Caruso enters the race for L.A.’s next mayor.

For months, Angelenos have been wondering if billionaire businessman Rick Caruso will run for mayor. It appears as if the question will be answered in the affirmative Friday afternoon. The Los Angels Times reported that Caruso has scheduled an appointment with the City Clerk to file the papers necessary to get his name on the ballot.

With the mayor’s race perhaps set to ignite in a whole new way, here are some considerations to ponder:

This Is Not a Surprise

Predicting Caruso will run has been about as risky as declaring the sun would rise in the east. That Caruso taking may be taking the final steps to so is less a revelation than a confirmation.

To wit: Last October, Los Angeles reported that Caruso had retained uber-political consultant Ace Smith; in January, the mall developer 1) joined Twitter, and 2) tweeted that he had switched his party affiliation to Democrat. Why do either unless you’re planning something big?

The trail of bread crumbs goes back even further. Caruso has long had a seat at the table in the civic infrastructure of the city, serving as a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission and on the board of the Department of Water and Power. After the murder of George Floyd he took out a full-page ad in the Times in which he thundered: “It is my duty to speak up” and “each of us can and should change the world one person at a time.”

These are not statements that necessarily advance the interests of a billionaire commercial real estate developer—unless he is seriously considered running for public office.

But It Will Not Be a Surprise if He Skips

It would have been easy in recent weeks for Caruso to give winking acknowledgement that he is indeed entering the race to succeed a termed-out Eric Garcetti. As of this writing, that has not happened.

Remember, in 2013 Caruso publicly acknowledged that he was contemplating a bid for mayor but never entered the race. If he sits this one out, he is simply following his own precedent.

Filling Out a Form Is Only Filling Out a Form

Let’s assume Caruso visits the city clerk, raises his hand and solemly swears he’ll be a respectable mayor. But all that means is that he has taken steps to put his name on the ballot. And even if he enters the race, there is no requirement that he finish it. Remember Austin Beutner: Long before he became superintendent of the LAUSD, Beutner—an affluent, civic-minded businessman and top deputy to Mayor Antonio Villaraigsoa at a salary of $1 a year—decided to run for mayor but dropped out after a few months on the campaign trail.

Big Bang Theory

If Caruso is ready to roll, expect him to go big. This is a man who likes to make a splash. Have you seen the dancing fountains at his malls? Ridden the trolleys that don’t actually go anywhere? Spectacle is his thing.

So if Caruso enters the mayoral race, he’s likely to do bigly. The rumor du jour: he’s already bought commercial time during the Super Bowl to declare.

The Competition Is Stiff

Caruso may be the king of an upscale real estate empire,  but none of his four chief opponents will treat him like one. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and Councilmembers Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino know how to handle themselves in front of a microphone and a crowd. Each believes he or she has a secure path to finish in the top two in the June 7 primary and advance to a November runoff. While Caruso may have a bloc predisposed to support his business-savvy playbook, there will be many undecided voters; his opponents know from bitter experience how to recruit them. Does Caruso?

His Run Will Be Difficult

If Caruso runs, his path will be strewn with land mines. Few candidates make it through a grueling campaign without detonating some.

Caruso will be asked to answer questions—some related to his Catholic faith—that no one would dare raise in his C-suite. He will have to maintain his cool when pressed about scandals that occurred at the University of Southern California while he chaired the board of trustees. He’ll also have to explain, many times, how shifting his party preference to Democrat was not mere opportunism.

The Wealth Factor

Caruso can enter the race just three months before mail-in ballots go out because he can write a mammoth check to cover every possible campaign expense. But wealth is a double-edged sword in a campaign. One can already count the number of times opponents will accuse him of trying to buy the election, and some voters will disdain the air of entitlement that comes when you own a mammoth yacht named Invictus.

The Bottom Line

How this ends I have no idea. But it will be fascinating to watch.

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